As Wales loses its cultural distinctiveness, will a civic identity sustain us?

Wales from space. Picture by NASA

Ifan Morgan Jones

Why does such a thing as Wales exist? If you looked down on Wales from space, there would be nothing to designate that Wales was a country apart.

Yes, there is quite clearly a prominent land mass of note sticking out of the island of which it is a part. But the proturbations known as East Anglia and South West England are equally noteworthy.

Countries are there for historical cultural and economic reasons. In Wales’ case, we have half a nation-state because we have half the justification for being a country.

We have maintained a tenuous hold of nationhood because of a linguistic and religious heritage that has bubbled up out of the past and laid the foundations for a modern nation-state, but without the economic independence that would take us all the way to national independence.

Wales, at the start of the age of modern nation-states in the 19th century, was a Welsh speaking, nonconformist, country in an English-speaking, Anglican union.

As power shifted from the Anglicised landowners to the bourgeois middle-class, as Christendom cracked into modern nation-states, that was all the difference needed to begin crow-barring England and Wales, fused together since the 16th century, apart again.

In the 19th century, liberal Welsh nonconformists argued that Wales’ religious identity meant that it was more than a county of England – that it was a country deserving of its own national institutions (which they, naturally, would be in charge of).

We got a University of Wales, a National Library, a National Museum, our own rugby and football teams.

By the late 20th century, the religious argument was already largely gone. But there was enough left of the historical, cultural entity to serve the best interests of the Labour party, who saw an opportunity to establish a permanent electoral fortress.

As a result, we got our own parliament. These civic institutions may have been an end in themselves but, absent an economic argument for separation, they needed the justification of the linguistic and cultural template which came before them.

Civic nationalism

But the cultural, linguistic, religious and political argument that Wales is a country apart is slowly withering away. We are becoming more and more indistinguishable from our neighbours over the border.

Some herald this as a shift from an exclusive, ethnic nationalism to an inclusive, civic nationalism.

But there is a danger here too. If you’re a country just because you’re a country – that you have all these national institutions and it would be too much bother to shut them down – you’re in a very dangerous place.

As Brexit has shown us, the public has no qualms about shutting down political institutions when the mood takes them.

Without Wales’ cultural heritage, Wales actually makes little sense as a country. It has no integrated economy or transport system. One could forgive those in the north of Wales for wondering what hold Cardiff has over them, and why.

The point I’m making is that there’s nothing inevitable about Wales. Countries are made by people and people can unmake them whenever they see fit.

Wales has been killed off before, has been resurrected, and could easily be killed off again. We may like to think of nations as permanent fixtures, but in truth the only continuity is change.

Those who benefit most from the existence of Wales as a separate country need to realise that if they want their civic institutions to flourish they can’t neglect the cultural cement which fundamentally makes Wales a country apart.

Neglect

The survival of a unique Welsh language and culture up until the early days of the modern nation-state was a historical accident. It dodged many bullets to get there, but did. Phew.

But since then its survival or demise has been a matter that’s in the hands of the state.

Throughout the 19th century and up until the second half of the 20th, the state was actively opposed to its existence, and since then, supportive but neglectful.

Wales’ language and culture are now altogether a subject for our own devolved parliament. It can choose to save, or it can choose to kill, or it can choose to neglect.

So far it seems to be happy to do the latter. The government may set lofty goals, such as 1 million Welsh speakers by 2050, but there’s been no fundamental change of strategy that would halt the current decline.

I’m all for civic nationalism. But it can’t be ignored that those nations that preach civic nationalism are those whose cultural and linguistic identity is already secure.

Once that cultural identity does come under threat, the nation acts swiftly – as we’ve seen with Brexit and Trump, which is more than anything a backlash against a (primarily imaginary, in those cases) threat to the nation’s dominant culture.

Wales’ cultural identity is anything but safe. Our language is an endangered species. In many parts of Wales, it can be seen fading away as a community language in real-time.

Its industrial heritage too, is slowly ebbing away as living memory fades and as the valleys continue their demographic and economic decline. The laissez-faire approach won’t do.

There are many who bristle at the suggestion that you need the Welsh language, or the Welsh culture, to be Welsh.

That’s perfectly true, on an individual level. If you live or have lived in Wales and believe yourself to be Welsh then you are, in my opinion.

But if we feel we can do without the cultural markers that have sustained us in the past we need to articulate, on a national level, what replaces them.

What does set Wales apart? In the absence of these unique characteristics, why are we a country?

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